Take California, for instance. During the first week of open enrollment, officials from the state-run exchange, Covered California, struggled to get the site's provider function up and running, leaving consumers unable to search for their doctor.
On Oct. 7, the California exchange launched its directory, a feature that allows users to search for specific physicians or hospitals and see which plans include those providers in their networks without leaving Covered California's website. But on Oct. 9, amid heavy traffic and slow page-loading speed, the exchange pulled the directory offline.
“We anticipate the directory will return next week with improved performance,” spokesman Roy Kennedy said Oct. 10. Until then, Covered California's website contains a contact list for health plans participating on the exchange. Consumers also can access provider information by calling the exchange's service center, he said.
Requiring users to jump to insurance carriers' website to search for providers is less than ideal, said Maribeth Shannon, director of the market and policy monitor program at the California HealthCare Foundation.
“It's better to have that feature embedded on the (exchange) site,” she said. “Once you link someone out to another site, they may never come back. There's a greater chance that people will become distracted and won't finish the enrollment process.”
Kennedy said Covered California staffers are reconfiguring some of the directory's navigation paths, adding more capacity and enhancing its search functions. “We recognize that many consumers will base plan selection on the provider network, so it's critical that it's operating efficiently,” he said. “We think the next version of the directory will be faster, smoother and easy to use.”
Even though California's directory had an uneven start, Claire McAndrew, a senior health policy analyst at Families USA, a group that supports the healthcare reform law, calls California's approach “the gold standard” when it comes to giving consumers a way to search for in-network providers. “It's centralized and integrated on one site, versus clicking on each health plan and searching separate provider lists,” McAndrew said.
Anthony Wright, executive director of Health Access, a Sacramento, Calif.-based healthcare consumer advocacy group, also praised Covered California's provider-search tool. “Just typing in a doctor's name and seeing all of the plans that have him in network is a groundbreaking new tool that we did not have before,” Wright said. “It will be a big benefit—once it's actually up and running, of course.”
In Maryland, the physician search feature is not yet active and will not return physician names, according to the Maryland Health Connection website. In the interim, the site redirects visitors to the Chesapeake Regional Information System for Our Patients, or CRISP, website, Maryland's designated health information exchange. There, visitors can search by provider name, location or provider type to determine which exchange health plans each doctor or hospital participates in.
Washington state's exchange, Washington Healthplanfinder, has a similar tool on its site, spokeswoman Bethany Frey said. Visitors to the exchange can enter some basic information, browse plans and search by provider name to see in-network options.
Other state exchanges just redirect consumers to participating insurers' provider directories.